Imperfect Serenity

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Daring Books

I have two brand new books to plug. The first is Who's Your Mama?: The Unsung Voices of Women and Mothers As the press release describes, it is a book of “Narratives by a racially and economically diverse group of women, who broaden the traditional notion of motherhood in the United States by discussing their unique experiences and perspectives.” It focuses on topics not usually covered in typical motherhood books, like adoption by a gay couple, raising biracial children, and even the decision to remain childless. It is edited by Yvonne Bynoe, with a foreword by Rebecca Walker (Alice Walker’s daughter) and includes essays by a wide range of women, including my friend Lori Tharps and me. My essay is about how facing my mother’s racism made me look more closely at what my own children were learning about race. I felt compelled to write this essay and was happy that it found a home in this collection, though its publication raises conflicted feelings. I’m hoping it will help other parents think about and discuss how they teach their children about race.

The second book I want to plug is by my friend, Miriam Peskowitz: The Double-Daring Book for Girls Those of you with daughters probably already know about the Daring books. This new version is even more focused on the fun activities kids enjoy, without the nostalgia of the first book. Although I know girls will enjoy having these daring activities explained for them, most of the activities would be just as interesting to boys. For example, I was a “consultant” on the car camping section, which is certainly gender neutral, though another friend gave tips for peeing in the woods that may not be necessary for boys. My daughter loves these books for the ideas they give her. In addition to that, I love to see my friend (who is trained as a feminist religious scholar) raising the standard of popular culture.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Troubles and Hopes

The New York Times brought me to tears this morning, which doesn’t happen very often. I haven’t even been skimming it lately, to tell the truth. Aside from being busy, I haven’t felt the need to read one more article on AIG. But the murder of three police officers in two different incidents at the hands of an IRA faction sent me to the Times and this opinion piece by David Park, which describes how people in Northern Ireland reacted to the possibility of resumed violence:
Across towns and cities people of all traditions assembled to protest in dignified but powerful silence. There was a constant reiteration that what had been achieved could not now be lost, that a peace process, for all its problems, could not be usurped and subverted by the gun.
Park goes on to describe the united condemnation of politicians who a decade or two ago were sworn enemies.

When I visited Belfast in 1982, British soldiers patrolled the Falls, the Catholic neighborhood that was lined with pro-IRA graffiti and sentiment. You could feel the tension—the fear of the young soldiers and the fear and resentment of the few people on the streets. I had gone with a friend from my study abroad program in Dublin, another American of Irish Catholic ancestry. We both had a prurient desire to see “the Troubles” ourselves. We walked up the Falls Road, past the soldiers and the graffiti until we reached a place where we could cut over to Shankill, the Protestant neighborhood that ran parallel to the Falls. Shankill was noticeably more affluent and less tense, despite the cross streets that ended in barbed wire, guarding the no man’s land that separated them from the Falls. When the British army moved into Northern Ireland in 1969 it was supposedly to protect the Catholics from the Protestants, but by 1982, it seemed to be the other way around. The Falls was under siege. I have no trouble understanding why people wouldn’t want to go back.

I met a young man from Belfast a few years ago who thought I was crazy to have taken this walk before he was born, but I never felt unsafe. In fact, I never felt so conspicuously American, gaping at the signs of conflict with my friend as we walked up and down the troubled hill. It was my first experience of being in a place of violent conflict (unless you count West Philadelphia), and there was something moving about being there. A year later I wrote my honor’s thesis comparing the genesis of the IRA with that of the PLO. I’m sure someone could write a thesis today on why the peace process in Northern Ireland has worked better than the one in the Middle East, but what I want to write today is a celebration of the apparent triumph of sanity. I want to celebrate people like John and Diana Lampen, British Quakers who worked for peace in Northern Ireland for many years, and the folks who run the Ulster Project, a program that brings Catholic and Protestant teenagers from Northern Ireland (Ulster) to stay in the United States, where it is easier for them to build relationships than it would be back home. In fact, the young man from Belfast whom I met was staying with good friends who live in Milwaukee. The host teenager, Andrew Pauly, made a video commemorating the experience.

Rewatching Andrew’s video, I’m stuck by the simple importance of building relationships. Young people who would have never met at home—because they went to different schools and lived on different sides of what are now called “peace lines”—got a chance to bond and begin a new history. I can’t help but suspect that some of them were in the crowd at the peace rally last week.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


It’s been so long since I’ve blogged, it’s hard to know where to start. I could write about my spiritual journey with the snow days—one more lesson in accepting the things I cannot change—or the great time I had in New York a few weeks ago to watch my friend Stephanie Smallwood get a prestigious award for her book, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. I could write about Lent and how I’m trying to make it meaningful as a Quaker married to a Catholic, which is kind of related to the snow issue since both remind me that I still need practice letting go of my own desires. But the most powerful reminder I’ve had lately about how much I have to learn about sacrifice has come through a series of emails about a woman who is today ending her 21-day hunger strike to bring attention to the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe.

I visited Zimbabwe twice when I was in the Peace Corps in Botswana in the mid-eighties. At that time, it was the hope of the region. I bought my butter from Zimbabwe to support that country’s developing democracy. And now the people in this rich land are literally starving because of the rule of Robert Mugabe, who last week threw himself a $250,000 birthday bash. Although his electoral rival Morgan Tsangari has finally been appointed as Prime Minister, conditions in the country remain bleak. The New York Times reports that some human rights activists are being released from the torture-filled prisons, but not all. The world really does need to pay attention to this because although there are many brave people in Zimbabwe, they need support to take their country back.

So far, many of the most vocal allies have been South Africans, like Nomboniso Gasa, chair of South Africa’s Commission for Gender Equality and the woman who is ending her water-only hunger strike today (pictured above at the end of her fast). She has been using her fast days to raise awareness of the situation in general, but especially the plight of women, who face the added threat of sexual violence. Before coming to New York this week, she made a video about the conditions faced by Zimbabwe’s many refugees. Nomboniso took over the fast from my friend Kumi Naidoo, the head of CIVICUS, and is passing the relay on to Dumisa Ntsebeza, the third South African in the chain.

You don’t have to fast for 21 days to support the cause. Some are volunteering for short stints. The Save Zimbabwe Now web site implores:
Join the fast and express your solidarity with the estimated five million Zimbabweans who are starving because of the greed, corruption and incompetence of the repressive Zanu-PF regime. The fast represents a wealth of solidarity and commitment from across the globe that policy makers and leaders of Southern Africa will not be able to ignore.

The Save Zimbabwe Now Campaign is driven by a broad collaboration of organisations and movements and has formal support from a wide range of groupings including the South African Council of Churches, Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition the Khulumani Support Group, COSATU, the Zimbabwe Solidarity Forum, social movements from across the region, youth and student formations, CIVICUS, ACTION for Conflict Transformation and the National Constitutional Assembly in South Africa. Popular support for the campaign is growing daily as the situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate.

And so we come back to Lent and the practice I need at letting go and sacrifice. My first response to this is that I couldn’t possibly fast because I’m way too busy—and then I remember that Kumi is way busier than I am. I feel lightheaded if I don’t get a mid-morning snack, and then I remember the fact that people in Zimbabwe often go days without food. We will be attending an inter-faith Lenten supper this evening, but the big sacrifice there is that we will only get bread and soup for supper, an amazing array of soups that are hearty and delicious, based on past years. (And I don't have to cook or pay, so really it's a total win for me.) I feel humble just thinking about the commitment of these activists and challenged to think about participating—maybe for a day next week, when I’m on spring break. In the meanwhile, I can help to spread awareness, which is one of the fast’s objectives.

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